TOKYO Japanese Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano already has three key cabinet posts. Now some pundits say he looks well-placed to take the top job too.
Prime Minister Taro Aso's public support, already in a slump after policy flip-flops and gaffes, took another hit when close ally Shoichi Nakagawa quit as finance minister last week after being forced to deny he was drunk at a G7 gathering in Rome.
Surveys also show his long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is in danger of losing an election that must be held by October, making more and more lawmakers nervous about their futures.
"Yosano is the front runner given the conditions at this juncture. Basically, they need someone kind of coordinator," said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University political science professor.
Yosano, a fiscal hawk who has shown flexibility about spending as Japan's recession worsens, added the finance and banking supervision portfolios to his economics post after Nakagawa quit, prompting some Japanese media to refer to a "de facto Yosano government."
"He is senior and regarded as a safe pair of hands," Nakano added. "LDP bosses may think Yosano is a good figure to unite the party but ... so-called reformers may not find it so easy to fall in behind him."
The 70-year-old Yosano has been critical of market-oriented reforms initiated by popular Junichiro Koizumi during his tenure as prime minister from 2001-2006.
The LDP itself has been drifting away from those reforms, especially after losing a 2007 upper house election to the opposition Democratic Party and its allies, who harshly attacked the social gaps they argued have widened as a result.
SENSE OF HUMOUR
"He favors big government over small government and has an inherently critical stance toward free enterprise," said Jesper Koll, CEO of investment consultant Tantallon Research Japan.
In a poll in the Nikkei business daily on Monday, Yosano ran neck-and-neck with Koizumi when voters were asked should be the next premier. Both garnered 9 percent support, in second place after Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa with 17 percent.
Only four percent chose Aso.
Koizumi has said he would not run in the next election, and few if any analysts expect him to stage a comeback.
The grandson of two well-known poets, Yosano started his political career in 1968 by joining the office of Yasuhiro Nakasone, who was prime minister in the 1980s. A fluent English-speaker, Yosano also has a sharp sense of humor.
Asked by an opposition lawmaker why he was tapped to replace Nakagawa, whom critics say Aso chose because he was a close friend, Yosano replied: "Isn't it because I'm not his friend?"
Yosano resigned as chairman of the ruling party's powerful tax panel in late 2006 due to cancer of the pharynx. He returned to politics after surgery and some time off and has served in the past two cabinets, but worries about his physical stamina remain.
Quizzed by opposition Democratic Party No. 2 Naoto Kan over the heavy weight of holding three important posts, Yosano quipped: "If you'd take my place, I'd like to give up one."
But whether Yosano could revive the LDP is in doubt.
"Yosano has been the person behind the Aso government, so he would just be getting in front," Nakano said. "I don't think he'd be able to turn things around for the LDP all that much."
(Editing by Rodney Joyce)